There’s growing concerns over the disorganisation of the council planning department, after last night’s scheduled meeting of the planning committee in the Town Hall Chamber had to be cancelled because of “issues with publication of reports”.
The cancellation means that the last four planning committees have all been cancelled (this includes one that was set aside on the day of the Queen’s death).
But overall, going back to June, five of the last eight committees have failed to meet. In fact, the committee of elected councillors has not met to discuss planning applications since August 11, and there’s already a cancelled planning committee in November, on November 3, the day of the Selsdon Vale and Forestdale by-election.
“It’s a poor look,” a Katharine Street source told Inside Croydon today. “It shouts incompetence.”
It was certainly incompetence that led to last night’s cancellation: council staff published the wrong set of papers, which meant that there was not enough time for those whose applications were supposed to be heard to be properly notified.
But that is just one signal of a planning department that is struggling to cope with its workload.
According to council insiders, there has been a drop in larger site applications, so the committee has not had enough business to discuss. The possibility arises that if the committee does not meet, then the council’s planners – who have a well-deserved reputation for being very friendly with developers – might use their powers to push through schemes without them ever going before the councillors and denying local objectors any hearing.
The reduction in the number of large site applications has had another consequence, too: less income to the cash-strapped council than had been predicted in the 2022-2023 Town Hall budget which was agreed in March. More problems for the borough’s part-time Mayor, Jason Perry.
The number of smaller-scale, more mundane applications – from householders who want to build an extension to their home, for example – has not declined and is keeping the planning officials busy. Despite the council having been on a recruitment drive for planning staff, there remains a considerable backlog of work, with several in the planning department working solely on appeals and public enquiries.
The planning department, which is under the management of controversial executive director Heather Cheesbrough, has previously refused councillor requests for reports on the number of “delegated decisions” – those planning applications passed (or refused) by council officers, by-passing the committee. Councillors were told that the planning department was too busy to provide such a checklist on its work.
The recent spate of cancelled committee meetings, Town Hall insiders suspect, may also be a reaction by officials to the appointment as committee chair of Tory councillor Michael Neal.
A long-time ward colleague of Jason Perry in the days when the Mayor was a mere South Croydon ward councillor, Neal is regarded as little more than a stooge. His appointment as planning chair in May was widely seen as a reward for years of dedicated brown-nosing in the Perry cause.
And obediently following party orders could be storing up serious problems in the future for the council if it can be shown that Neal has been pre-determining some applications – giving developers strong grounds to appeal against the committee’s rulings.
As one insider said, “It risks undermining the integrity of the planning committee. You can see at some of the meetings, he reads printed notes stating why he’s using his casting vote to reject an application.
“On top of that, he and the Tories on the committee appear to be incapable of formulating refusal grounds, and they are always asking officers to help. Council planning staff should only be advising whether the reasons put forward by the committee for refusal are robust. But Neal’s approach is just to say ‘We’re refusing this’, and then asking the officers to come up with a reason.”
Croydon Council’s propaganda department failed to respond to our questions on the issues affecting the planning committee.
Inside Croydon tried to speak to Councillor Neal today. But the phone number published on the council website for the chair of the planning committee is not working…
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